Islam: Sunnism

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Islam: Sunnism

FOUNDED: 632 c.e.


Sunnism is the largest branch of Islam, representing more than 80 percent of all Muslims. The word itself derives from the Arabic sunnah, which means "accepted or established practice."

Sunnis claim that they represent the traditional, common understanding of Islam proclaimed by the prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah (c. 570–632 c.e.), who founded Islam. As such, they differentiate themselves from the Shiites, the other major branch of Islam. Sunnism focuses on the collective will of the group, emphasizing consensus on religious, social, political, legal, and doctrinal issues.

After its founding in the seventh century c.e. Sunnism became entrenched as the religion of the expanding Islamic empire in the Middle East. It initially spread through state conquest, but eventually immigrants, merchants, and Sufi adherents carried its distinctive message eastward to Southeast Asia and China and westward to Africa and the Mediterranean basin. It has remained the favored perspective espoused by most governments and state institutions throughout the Islamic world. Today its adherents are found in almost every country in the world.


The Koran, the sacred text of Islam, does not recognize a distinctive group called Sunnis. Rather, Sunnism is one of two broad movements that evolved in the Muslim community after the Prophet's death in 632 c.e. Disagreement over who was Muhammad's legitimate successor led to a schism between two groups, Sunnis and Shiites, resulting in two interpretations of Islam and two different sacred histories.

According to Sunnism, Muhammad left no written will at his death, and thus no one could claim to be his designated successor. On the day before he died, however, he had ordered a longtime associate, Abu Bakr, to lead the community in prayer. After Muhammad's funeral, members of the Islamic community chose Abu Bakr to be his successor without much apparent contention. They were convinced by the lofty position that Abu Bakr held in the community, as well as by his selection as prayer leader, which they saw as a signal from the Prophet. From that moment on, most Muslims believed that the majority view should decide crucial issues, including who should be its leader. Followers of this belief became known as ahl al-sunnah wa'l-jama'ah (people of established practice and of the community), or Sunnis.

A minority of Muslims opposed the Sunni position, claiming that during his last pilgrimage the Prophet had named Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his successor. They came to be known as the Shia (partisans) of Ali, later shortened to Shia or Shiites. The disagreement over succession spawned a series of four internal battles called fitnahs (seditions), which were interspersed between the years 632 to 819 c.e. The Sunnis argued that the Muslim community should be understood as the collectivity of all believers, which was responsible for deciding what should be done about any controversial issue, including succession. They eventually argued that God guided the collective will of his believers. Although Ali was selected as the fourth caliph (successor of Muhammad) in 656, by the time Ali was assassinated five years later, the two groups were sufficiently differentiated that Muslims could identify to which faction a person belonged. Eventually Sunnis embraced their name as a way to affirm their loyalty to accepted traditions associated with the Prophet, which, they held, formed the basis of a growing Islamic consensus.

Over the years Sunnis often ruled Muslim empires, but they had to deal with explaining just what their defining value, consensus, entailed. Many problems required going beyond the simple statements that had been passed down to the rulers from the Prophet. Hence, Sunnis supported a wide range of intellectuals (physicians, Koranic interpreters, historians, scientists, and educators). A class of scholars known as the ulama developed, providing the basis for an international Sunnism to thrive. Scholars organized Islamic sources into legal texts (which were accepted as authoritative), and ordinary Sunnis gradually deferred to these scholars (or legists) on most matters of faith and law. These believers increasingly espoused the Shari'ah (the system of Muslim law) not just as a means to solve their legal problems but also as a way to understand and follow God's will.

Sunnis were not the only Muslims who embraced the Shari'ah as a spiritual guide, but because Sunnism provided the foundation for its development, the Shari'ah became inextricably connected to how people understood Sunnism. When scholars speak of the classical period of Islam (c. 900–1200 c.e.), they are usually referring to a time when consciousness of the Shari'ah combined with other great achievements throughout the Muslim world, forming the pinnacle of Islamic, and Sunni, civilization. For the ordinary believer the triumph of the Sunni perspective indicated that divine providence accompanied its system of values, and its success coalesced in the popular mind with that of worldwide Islam. By the end of the classical period, however, Sunnis faced an important question: whether new perspectives could be incorporated without seriously modifying the assumptions of its system. Some ulama argued that the door to new insights should be closed, and the result was a social order that found it difficult to confront changes associated with modernity.

Beginning in the thirteenth century a unified sense of Sunnism was also challenged by the emergence of independent states and emirates, who relied less on an international Sunni value system. That, along with the loss of any real power behind a unifying figure like the caliph, led to political fragmentation in the Islamic world, which signaled a weakening of Muslim cohesion. By the time of the Renaissance in Europe in the 1500s, when the West challenged Muslim civilization, the word Sunni had taken on a meaning close to "doctrinaire." Thus, Sunnism often appeared to Western commentators as Islam's "orthodoxy."

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries political issues increasingly dominated Sunnism. As a result of Western colonialism, the Muslim world was severed into small nation-states, each vying for legitimacy, further weakening Muslim cohesion. By the end of the twentieth century most Muslim countries were dealing with militant fundamentalist groups bent on reform. These anti-Western and anti-regime movements were characterized by a commitment to the international triumph of Islam and a rigid opposition to all things not of Islamic origin. Although such groups considered themselves Sunni, their views were not shared by the majority of Sunnis; instead, they represented a new Islamic identity that could not be understood in terms of classical Sunnism.


Sunni doctrine affirms that God of Islam, or Allah, is the only God, a concept underlined in the Koran by the word tawhid (unity, or oneness of God). Shiite belief differs little on this issue.

Often the Koran calls for believers to heed what the Prophet says and does. Yet Sunnis insist that the Prophet was but a man, and they have forbidden not only the worship of the Prophet but also the creation of any images of him. Moreover, Sunnis affirm that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets (33:40), meaning that he brought the final and complete message from God. Sunnis are convinced that God will not speak again through any other spokesperson, so they have opposed newer claims to apostleship by other Muslims, such as the Ahmadiyya reformers in India and Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the Prophet was considered an ideal model, and memories of what he said and did were written down. Eventually these were collected in books known as the hadith (usually translated as "traditions"). Sunnis treasure six of these collections, beginning with the ninth-century collections of Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari and Muslim ibnu'l-Hajjaj.

Early in the classical age of Islam another view of the religion, known as Mu'tazilism, developed within Sunnism. The scholars who shaped this perspective tried to apply a rational and allegorical interpretation to the Koran. Ultimately Sunnis rejected their approach, insisting that the Koran was not a matter for philosophical speculation but rather a set of codes by which one should live. This is why some commentators do not speak about orthodoxy in Islam but "orthopraxy," meaning a standard way of living.

Sunnis have debated the issue of free will versus predestination. Most Sunnis hold that a person's life is intersected by God's will in many crucial but nonassertive ways, but the Koran states that God guides whom he will, implying that a person's destiny is in the hands of God. The Koran seems to offer a balance between the notion of free will and predestination. As a result, Sunnis believe that humans should live in submission to God, even while acknowledging that their end is in God's hands.

Islamic law does not function as law in the West does. The emphasis in Sunni courts is to guide Muslims toward living the true Islamic life and thus to turn society into a normative Muslim community. Sunnis generally practice according to one of four schools of law, which vary on some issues and are distributed regionally: Hanafi (Iraq, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan), Maliki (North and West Africa), Shafi'i (Yemen, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines), and Hanbali (Saudi Arabia). Because of historical factors such as population movements and changes in the ruling dynasties, Muslims in areas such as Syria or the West may find multiple schools in the same location.


The Sunni moral code is a product of the Koran, which often expresses the importance of action over belief. In the same vein, the Prophet is said to have voiced the Muslim Golden Rule: "No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." Moreover, the Koran commands an ethics of retaliation (42:42)—that is, turning the other cheek is not acceptable when faced with an evil person.

Everyday activities are normally evaluated according to two concepts, halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden). Halal encompasses all things that the Koran, the hadith, and Sunni culture have decided are permitted. Thus, only animals killed according to proper procedures are permitted to be eaten. Haram applies to all those acts that the sources define as being forbidden, such as suicide or eating pork.

Sunni law developed more nuanced approaches to moral issues by classifying acts according to three further categories—neutral, recommended, and reprehensible—which, along with halal and haram, provided five possible ahkam, or rulings. There has been debate about how these principles should be applied to an individual's actions, and Sunni courts require that the context for such actions be established.


The Koran is the sacred scripture for both Sunnis and Shiites. The prophet Muhammad received the holy text in 610 c.e. when the archangel Gabriel told him to "recite"; this revelatory process continued until Muhammad's death in 632. Immediately afterward Abu Bakr, the first caliph (successor to the Prophet), began collecting these revelations in what became the Koran, an activity that was completed by Uthman about 20 years later. This text was accepted as canonical, and all other versions were destroyed. Sunnis have stood by the veracity of this text, despite questions raised about it.

Sunnis regard the Koran as God's last instruction; it is the ultimate authority on all matters of doctrine, religious behavior, and faith. All Sunnis maintain that even though the version we know was compiled after the time of the Prophet, it reflects an eternal message; it is said that the original book ("the mother of the book") has always resided with God in heaven. Sunnis also hold that the Koran's message was sent to all prophets but that the other resulting sacred scriptures were either lost or reflect a modification of the pure original message. Thus, the Koran stands above all scriptures because of its claim to be God's word alone.

Sunni scholars consider Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah (late seventh century; "The Biography of the Prophet") to be of historical importance for depicting the setting of the Koran. This book has taken on almost canonical significance for its explanation of how the message came to be given through the prophet Muhammad. Among Sunnis, too, collections of the hadith (traditions) of the Prophet, as collected by the scholars Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari (810–70) and Muslim ibnu'l-Hajjaj (819–75), are accorded a paramount place in its theological literature.


Because in Islam only God's creations are to receive the greatest praise, and because turning an object into a totem or fetish is condemned, Sunnis venerate few human-made symbols. There are, however, some symbols of Muslim identity. The Kaaba, or cube, is the small, almost square building in the center of the courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Muslims worldwide pray toward the Kaaba. While the Kaaba serves as the prime symbol for all Muslims, it has always been in the hands of Sunnis.


All Sunni Muslims regard the "rightly-guided" caliphs—the first four leaders of the Muslim community (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali)—to be the crucial early leaders. Over the years factionalism has determined which of these leaders Sunnis have honored most.

An important leader at the pinnacle of Islam's classical period was Harun al-Rashid (786–809), whose caliphate in Baghdad was seen as taking Sunnism to unsurpassed excellence and splendor. Sunnism was also invigorated by Akbar (1556–1605), a Mughal emperor who firmly established Islam in northern India.

Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk (1881–1938), was responsible for a major rethinking of traditional Islamic statehood. His reforms in Turkey shifted the state's goals away from embodying religious ideology and toward adapting Sunnism to a modern society. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) founded the Islamic republic of Pakistan in 1947, attempting to maintain a Sunni identity within a Western political structure. Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–70) applied a socialist ideology to the Islamic state when he established a republic in Egypt in 1956.

Backlashes against non-Islamic trends have resulted in Sunni reform movements. One of the most important was Wahhabism, a conservative reform movement founded by Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92). A second movement emerged around Hasan al-Banna' (1906–49), whose Sunni Egyptian organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, spread throughout the Arab world, providing institutional growth for Islamism, or fundamentalism.

Sunni radical leadership has continued to express a wide variety of perspectives. Osama bin Laden (born in Saudi Arabia in 1957) encouraged the use of terror and indiscriminate violence to overthrow Western culture and political structures. Of perhaps equal relevance, though representing a different outlook, is Wallace Warith Din Muhammad (born in 1933), head of an Islamic movement in the United States—first called the Nation of Islam and then the American Muslim Society—begun by his father, Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975). Warith has dramatically changed an American sectarian movement into one of the most respected Sunni organizations in the Western world. In the United States the Muslim feminist perspective has been expressed effectively in the writings of Egyptian-born Leila Ahmed (born in 1940).


Rabi'ah al-Adawiyya (eighth century) of Basra, Iraq, was a devoted Sunni woman of Sufi (mystic) convictions; her asceticism inspired generations of muridin (devotees) to spend their lives in meditation. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), head of a school in Baghdad, underwent such a spiritual revolution that he abandoned his career and wrote books reconciling the mystical tradition with Sunni legal thinking. Sunni civilization was also influenced by writers such as Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207–73), a Sufi poet and savant; Ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240), a theosophist and metaphysical thinker; and Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who founded the study of societies (and by extension, sociology) with his concept of 'asabiyya (group cohesion).

Modern religious reformists include Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–97), a political revolutionary who resisted British imperialism in Islamic territories; Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–98), a Muslim modernist and advocate of Westernizing reform in India; Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), an advocate of Islamic modernism in Egypt; Sayyid Abdul Ala Mawdudi (1904–79), a neoconservative reformer and fundamentalist ideologue in Pakistan; and Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), the principal theorist of the contemporary radical Islamist movement.


Because Sunnism has no priesthood and no explicit religious hierarchy, there is no one spokesperson for the tradition. Over the course of history the ulama have come to be considered official authorities of Islamic learning, and they have often represented Sunnism. The scholarly class has exercised more control over the Sunni point of view than any other group, except, perhaps, until the rise of Islamism, or fundamentalism, in the contemporary period. Under the influence of Islamism another aspect of contemporary Sunni life has come to the fore: a small number of people, using media and technology, have been able to have a disproportionate power over public opinion.


There are no essential differences between Sunnis and Shiites concerning places of worship. Indeed, though the mosque is the common house of worship, a Muslim needs no building to carry out his or her religious responsibilities. No representation of the human form appears in mosques, because Islam forbids any image to be worshiped. By far the best-known Muslim building is the Kaaba in the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Sunnis who belong to a Sufi order may also pray in a meeting place called a zawiya, takiyah, or khaniqah. One corner of these buildings usually features the tomb of the order's saint or founder.

The Ideal Leader of an Islamic State

Traditional Sunnism holds that in a true Islamic state, religion and politics are united. What constitutes the true Islamic state, however, has been a matter of debate within the tradition, as have been the ideal qualities of the person who should lead the state. Some Sunnis believe that the true Islamic community is led by a religious person whose piety indicates that he or she is God's choice as political leader. For instance, Abu Bakr, the first caliph (or successor to the prophet Muhammad, 632–32), has long been seen as a pious man who had little skill in governance but whose closeness to the Prophet justified his position. Other Sunnis maintain that Muslims should be led by someone with political acumen but no special piety. An example is Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–70), who in 1956 established Egypt as a republic compatible with Islamic principles; he possessed considerable political savvy but was not a particularly religious man.

Some places are sacred, such as Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem. While they are not exclusively honored by Sunnis, they hold a special place in Sunni consciousness because they have been under Sunni control.


All Muslims treat the Koran with special care. It is regarded by some as so powerful that it is deemed to have curative powers (a folk belief often found among ordinary Sunnis).

Lives of saintly figures such as Muhammad were early on thought to contain a powerful spiritual element called baraka. Moreover, founders and leaders of Sufi orders are often considered to have baraka, and seeking their help with some problem is recognized as a way of appropriating the saint's power to one's life. According to some Moroccan Sunnis, tombs of the saints can contain baraka, and consequently the countryside is dotted with sacred places for visitation.


Sunnism observes all major Muslim holidays (including Id al-Fitr, celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast, and Id al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice). Most Sunni countries also celebrate the birthday of the Prophet. This is in contrast to Shiite communities, where Ali or other Shiite figures receive prominent attention.


Sunnism has not developed a distinctive dress code. Diversity is the norm within Muslim communities, and ethnicity and culture have often had greater influence than religion on clothing. Nevertheless, at times throughout history some distinctive styles have been supported by Sunni culture.

Wearing the hijab, or veil, almost always identifies a woman as a conservative Muslim; some Sunni women go so far as to wear the burqa, a loose garment that covers the whole body, including the head and face, with only a slit for the eyes. A significant challenge to the Sunni use of the hijab was made by an Egyptian woman, Huda Sharawi (1879–1947), early in the twentieth century. She led like-minded feminists in discarding the veil. Supporters of the hijab point to the purported styles adopted by Muhammad's wives, while detractors argue that it arose in classical society as a way for the highest-class women to distinguish themselves from the working class and that it was thus not meant as a requirement for all women.


Sunnis observe all the dietary laws of Islam. There are minor differences between the various Sunni law schools; for example, depending on the school, eating shellfish is classified as forbidden, reprehensible, or neutral.


Sunnis embrace all the central rites of Islam, the most fundamental of which include daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan, almsgiving, and hajj (pilgrimage). There are only minor differences between Sunnis and Shiites in these areas.


Sunnis practice four major rites of passage: birth, circumcision, marriage, and death. They celebrate the birth of child with the 'aqiqa, a sacrifice of an animal on the seventh day after birth.

Circumcision of boys is a marker of Muslim, and Sunni, identity; for example, in Egypt it occurs when a boy has completed the recitation of the Koran, usually at about age 12. For many Middle Eastern Muslims, completing the Koran's memorization is a sign that the adolescent is ready to move into the realm of adult responsibility.

A small number of Sunni cultures also perform female circumcision, depending upon ethnic custom and the interpretation of a particular statement of the Prophet. In the societies that practice this rite, it takes place at the onset of puberty. Girls are then deemed capable of being married, so the rite is associated with passage to adulthood. Most Sunni cultures oppose female circumcision.

Sunnism regards marriage as a blessing from God and views sexuality within marriage to be healthy and beneficial, so the wedding is an occasion for great community festivity. Thereafter, both parties take their places as members of the adult community. A major difference between Sunnism and Shiism is the practice of mut'ah (temporary) marriage, in which a duration, such as a day, a month, or three years, is chosen for the marriage. Sunni law rejects it, and Shiite law accepts it (although it is rarely practiced).


Because the Koran explicitly recognizes the legitimacy of other People of the Book (Jews and Christians), there is no attempt within Islam to launch a widespread program for conversion from other faiths. Generally speaking, Muslims, including Sunnis, are content to present information about Islam if asked.

Islamic law states that Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. In the West and in places where Muslims are a minority, however, male conversion through marriage is one means of community growth. In the United States the Nation of Islam has been particularly effective in organizing prison missions, with the result that many young African-American men are converted to Islam while incarcerated. Conservative Muslims are also energetic in presenting Islam's message to inquirers. One group that has sent "missionaries" throughout the world is the Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni reformist group based in the Indian subcontinent; it argues that Muslim society must return to its spiritual roots and properly extol the virtues of true Islam. This group, however, focuses its attention on Muslims.


Because Sunnism expanded through military conquest in the early days, Sunni's commitment to tolerance is often questioned. For example, members of the Ahmadiyya sect, who mainly live in Pakistan, claim widespread intolerance of their views by the majority Sunni population. Most observers, how-ever, note that there is little evidence of systemic intolerance in Sunnism. For centuries Sunnis have lived in close proximity to all major religions without making any concerted attempt to undermine them, and in most cases they have constructed good working relationships with other religions. Most Sunnis regard attacks against adherents of other religions to be forbidden, and they strongly criticize ultra-conservative and reactionary factions who do this in the name of Islam. Almost all Sunnis condemned the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, and they have insisted that intolerance is a characteristic of radical Islamist groups, not of Sunnism as a whole.


Sunnism stresses egalitarian principles. The integration of religion and politics in Sunni community life means that politics cannot override what religion guarantees. Even a person of the lowest status can claim that God has provided him or her with certain rights. Thus, in dispensing justice within the community, a Sunni ruler or official is charged to uphold rights above all else. Most Sunnis believe that an individual's rights include freedom of religion, the right to existence, and the right to own property. In Pakistan groups such as the All-Pakistan Women's Association and Women's Action Forum, while not overtly Sunni in their approach, have affiliates that argue for women's rights as a value consistent with Sunni teachings on equality. Progressive Muslims have used Sunni notions of equality to advocate a "gender jihad," arguing for a vigorous rethinking of the traditional relationship between the sexes in Muslim societies.


Sunnis typically live in a close-knit environment emphasizing personal piety, private family festivities, public prayer in the mosque, and community celebration. A key to this environment is marriage. Embracing the notion that the normative Muslim life is married life, Muslim families spend a great deal of time and effort in securing a good marriage for their children.


The most controversial aspect of Sunnism is the relationship between its tradition and the various fundamentalist or radical movements. Reflecting the Islamic revival that has been underway since the nineteenth century, some citizens of Muslim countries are reluctant to support secular governments on the grounds that Islam will be removed from the center of the state's values and that religious minorities will be granted the same political power as Muslims.

An important issue debated by Sunnis is whether Islam is compatible with Western-style democracy. At its extreme Sunni conservatism has given birth to anti-Western, antimodern religiopolitical governments (such as the Taliban of Afghanistan), as well as militant reactionary groups (such as al-Qaeda). Many Sunni theologians have been shocked by militant's promotion of politically motivated suicide, because all Sunni scholars have condemned suicide.

In Sunnism human existence is sacred; a human is regarded as the unique creation of God, and the entire person belongs to God. Therefore, euthanasia and abortion are not allowed. Because the body is required for resurrection and judgment, Sunnis traditionally resisted any alteration of the cadaver, including the use of the corpse for teaching and research purposes or even, at one time, for autopsy. Today autopsies are allowed.


The Koran, as the primary element of Muslim life, has had an impact on most Sunni artistic expressions. The holy text itself has been glorified with elaborately developed scripts, which are used for decorative purposes in mosques and public buildings. Because Sunnis insist on consensus, what can or cannot be a subject of art has been a matter of public debate. The broad cultural synthesis that was characteristic of Sunnism in its golden age has been shattered in the modern era by influences that have largely arisen from the West and from modern technology. Mosque architectural style, for example, may now reflect worldwide tastes, but often the decor remains traditional, with arabesque, calligraphy, and domes. Popular Sunni musicians in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East have wedded religious words to rap and rock music to appeal to a new generation of Muslim youth.

Earle H. Waugh

See Also Vol. 1: Islam


'Abduh, Muhammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated by Ishaq Musa'ad and Kenneth Cragg. London: Allen and Unwin, 1966.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Arberry, A.J., trans. The Koran Interpreted. 2 vols. London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Boullata, Issa J. Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Translated by Alfred Guillaume. London and Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Marsh, Clifton. From Black Muslims to Muslims. Metuchen, N.J., and London: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.

——. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Watt, W. Montgomery. The Formative Period of Islamic Thought. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973.

Yusuf Ali, Abdullah, trans. The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Elmhurst, N.Y.: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 1987.

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